Taking Jesus of Nazareth and Mohandas Gandhi as his models, Martin Luther King Jr. understood the moral authority that is earned by the willingness to suffer for your cause without retaliation, to take your beating and jail time and then get up the next morning and have the courage to do it again, to risk your life again.
King also understood that his strategy was made more effective by the disproportionate response that it usually provoked from those in authority. Peaceful marchers for the right to vote, for example, were often met with police dogs and firehoses unleashed by those who felt that the legitimacy of their power was under attack. And by that overreaction, they weakened themselves and showed who they really are.
John Lewis, who was one of King’s lieutenants, has not forgotten those lessons. On Friday, the Atlanta congressman announced that he would boycott the inauguration of Donald Trump as president because, he said, he did not view Trump’s election as legitimate after revelations of intervention by Russia.
Ordinarily, that would be a story with a media life-cycle of a few hours. But as sure as night follows day, Trump responded disproportionately:
As those tweets indicate, Trump is at heart a little man. He knows it, and his greatest fear is that others must see it too. Ask yourself: Have you known anyone in your adult life who whines more than Trump does, who yelps like a kicked dog at every perceived slight? Anyone at all? I have not. Maybe your life experience has been different, but mine tells me that is not the behavior of someone who is confident in his own skin. As the old saying goes, Trump can dish it out but he sure can’t take it, and there’s no better evidence of his deep sense of inadequacy than his own Twitter feed.
As it happens, I live in the Fifth Congressional District, which Lewis represents. I’ve made my home here for more than a quarter century and raised my family here, and I do not recognize the picture that Trump draws of this place. Nonetheless, it tells you a lot. Lewis is a black congressman from a southern city, so in Trump’s mind it follows that his district must be burning and crime-infested, in horrible shape and falling apart. That’s the cartoonish level of sophistication that he brings to his presidency. The idea that Lewis’s district is actually the economic engine of the South, with more than 40 percent of its population possessing college degrees and the landscape dotted with construction cranes, is beyond Trump’s comprehension because it contradicts the racist stereotypes by which he lives.
Lewis’s boycott has drawn some odd responses from other Republicans as well. For some reason, Gwinnett County Commissioner Tommy Hunter felt inspired to call Lewis “a racist pig” in a Facebook rant, and Trump’s White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, went on national television to call it “shocking” and “insanity” and “incredibly disappointing” for Lewis to question Trump’s legitimacy as president. He even called upon President Obama to intervene with Lewis and his fellow Democrats, to “step up and get his people in line” in defense of our democracy.
I keep thinking I can’t be amazed by this stuff any longer, that I can’t still be startled by the ability of people such as Priebus to utter such garbage with a straight face. I keep being wrong.
Remember this, Priebus?
Trump built his political credibility among the Republican base by directly, repeatedly and strongly attacking Barack Obama’s legitimacy not just as president but as a citizen of this country. He became his party’s nominee because he was willing to go full crazy, to say the things that standard Republicans would only hint at in public. And with very rare exceptions, leading Republicans did not step forward to defend Obama’s legitimacy.
Priebus was not one of those exceptions. When asked about it directly back in 2011, the then-chairman of the GOP said that Trump and other candidates “can talk about it all they want” as far as he is concerned. That’s the kind of courage that he showed at the moment that it mattered. All talk, no action.